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Geology : Paleontology

ROCKS AND LAYERS

We study Earth's history by studying the record of past events that is preserved in the rocks. The layers of the rocks are the pages in our history book.

Most of the rocks exposed at the surface of Earth are sedimentary--formed from particles of older rocks that have been broken apart by water or wind. The gravel, sand, and mud settle to the bottom in rivers, lakes, and oceans. These sedimentary particles may bury living and dead animals and plants on the lake or sea bottom. With the passage of time and the accumulation of more particles, and often with chemical changes, the sediments at the bottom of the pile become rock. Gravel becomes a rock called conglomerate, sand becomes sandstone, mud becomes mudstone or shale, and the animal skeletons and plant pieces can become fossils.

Diagram showing modern landscape 
and potential fossils
An idealized view of a modern landscape and some of the plants and animals that could be preserved as fossils.

As early as the mid-1600's, the Danish scientist Nicholas Steno studied the relative positions of sedimentary rocks. He found that solid particles settle from a fluid according to their relative weight or size. The largest, or heaviest, settle first, and the smallest, or lightest, settle last. Slight changes in particle size or composition result in the formation of layers, also called beds, in the rock. Layering, or bedding, is the most obvious feature of sedimentary rocks.

Originations of major life forms Sedimentary rocks are formed particle by particle and bed by bed, and the layers are piled one on top of the other. Thus, in any sequence of layered rocks, a given bed must be older than any bed on top of it. This Law of Superposition is fundamental to the interpretation of Earth history, because at any one location it indicates the relative ages of rock layers and the fossils in them.

Layered rocks form when particles settle from water or air. Steno's Law of Original Horizontality states that most sediments, when originally formed, were laid down horizontally. However, many layered rocks are no longer horizontal. Because of the Law of Original Horizontality, we know that sedimentary rocks that are not horizontal either were formed in special ways or, more often, were moved from their horizontal position by later events, such as tilting during episodes of mountain building.

Rock layers are also called strata (the plural form of the Latin word stratum), and stratigraphy is the science of strata. Stratigraphy deals with all the characteristics of layered rocks; it includes the study of how these rocks relate to time.

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Fossils, Rocks, and Time
By Lucy E. Edwards and John Pojeta, Jr.

Contents & Introduction
Putting Events in Order
The Relative Time Scale
Rocks and Layers
Fossils and Rocks
Fossil Succession
The Numeric Time Scale
Further Reading

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